When Badger Coaches turned its bus terminal at the corner of West Washington Avenue and South Bedford Street into apartments and retail space in 2009, Madison's bus passengers were dealt a blow.
In a letter at the time to city officials, the company's attorney noted that "operations going forward will be more in line with how bus companies are now operating all over the country." In other words: Madison bus riders better get used to online ticket sales and curbside pickups.
Those catching a bus out of town now wait - with little to no shelter - at the Memorial Union, Dutch Mill Park and Ride off Stoughton Road, or Madison Metro's north transfer point.
For a while it looked like an intermodal transit terminal would be built in downtown Madison, but Gov. Scott Walker put the kibosh on that when he turned down $810 million in federal funds for high-speed rail.
As more intercity buses stretch down Langdon Street, amid the Memorial Union's ongoing construction, the conversation about a depot may gain new momentum. A proposed transportation study currently working its way through city committees would include a search for potential locations for a new intercity bus terminal.
"It is not a dead issue," insists David Trowbridge, a project manager for the city's planning division. "There's been an indication that [bus companies] would be willing to participate in discussions about it."
Trowbridge and other planners point out that, in contrast to most trips offered by Megabus or Van Galder, riders with Greyhound and Lamers still have long layovers that require physical shelters.
"I think Greyhound has recognized in particular that they need a shelter-type facility," Trowbridge says. He adds that elderly or disabled customers using any bus line "don't feel comfortable standing on some dark street out on Dutch Mill Road."
But it will likely take a public-sector push to make the depot a reality. Allen Fugate, an operations manager at Van Galder, says it ultimately proved too expensive for Badger to own the bus depot, with its property taxes and upkeep costs. "The emphasis is on keeping infrastructure costs low," he says.
Nobody can detail how such a project would be funded, especially given the expense of finding a space convenient for UW-Madison students and others without cars. "It doesn't really fit neatly into one area of responsibility, because it's intercity transit," says William Schaefer, another city of Madison transportation planner.
Fugate says he hasn't heard of any customers complaining about having to use the Union, even as it continues to be a busy construction zone. But Rob Kennedy, a planner with UW-Madison's transportation services department, says the current situation at the Union only highlights the need for a new depot. While bus companies work well with the university, Kennedy says, "We occasionally reach the point where we've got five to seven buses [on Langdon], and it's become an issue that really needs some sort of resolution.
"The Union does not want to be known as a bus depot," Kennedy adds.
But to draw student passengers away from the Union, a depot would have to be close to campus. Kennedy says even the Bedford Street station wasn't close enough. Proximity is also key to convincing bus companies to use, and possibly lease space in, a new terminal.
Susan De Vos, a member of the Madison Area Bus Advocates group, wrote a September piece in Madison Commons insisting the city needs a new bus depot. De Vos says she's glad to see officials discussing the idea, but isn't yet convinced that they're committed.
"I would not let the city planners off the hook on this," she says.